Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Late Education

Alan Moorehead is a regrettably little recollected Australian author famous for his WWII books, Mediterranean Front, A Year of Battle, and The End in Africa; as well as Gallipoli, The Blue Nile, and The White Nile. I have enjoyed them all but my favorite is the marvelllously illustrated Darwin and the Beagle.

Looking for another book in my library, I came across Alan Moorehead's A Late Education, (1970) an autobiographical book that is in part a tribute to his WWII friend and fellow correspondent, Alexander Clifford. The following passage reads in such contemporary language about an almost unimagineably distant period; the early years of the Spanish Civil War. It reads like a scene from the movie Casablanca.

Anyone who was involved in the Spanish Civil War on the Franco side will remember St Jean de Luz on the Basque coast in southern France. Like the town of Riga in the Russian revolution it was a neutral staging-post on the edge of the conflict, and every traveller, whether he was a black-marketeer, a diplomat, a secret agent or a journalist would pause there for a while on his journeys in and out of Spain.

In St Jean de Luz you could get anything from a forged passport to a million-peseta small-arms contract, and it was a remarkable place for intrigue. Had the French government not kept order there would have been serious disturbances in the town, since the foreign colony and many of the French themselves were sharply divided into two camps - those who were for Franco and those who were against him - and they hated one another with a deep emotional hatred.

The centre for all this agitation was a cheerful little restaurant called the Bar Basque that still exists in the main street, and sooner or later everyone of any consequence made their way there in order to read the newspapers and pick up the latest gossip. There was no item of news about the fighting, whether it was the shipment of tanks from Russia or Moors from Morocco, the destruction of Guernica or the rising of the Fifth Column in Madrid, that was not either invented in the Bar Basque or discussed there with embellishments early in its course round the town.

Outwardly there was nothing sinister about the Bar Basque: you might have taken it as just another fashionable seaside restaurant that possibly merited a star in the Michelin guidebook. There were Basque murals on the walls, scenes of pelota players and peasants dancing the jota, and the decor was rustic walnut and red plush, all of it very comfortable and modern. People took their aperitifs under striped umbrellas in the street, where a line of horse-drawn cabs stood waiting under the trees, and then towards one in the afternoon and eight or nine in the evening the restaurant began to fill. One ate jambon de Bayonne (which was said to have lain all winter, salted and raw, maturing under the snow of the Pyrenees), langoustines, anchovies and tiny eels, angouilles, that were brought in each morning by fishing boats from the Atlantic, red and green pepper salads, jam omelettes and melons. On Thursday nights there was a cabaraet and a dance, and they served a dish of roast duck cooked with peaches, oranges and green peas. The wine was the local rose or Bordeaux, brought from the vineyards on the Garonne only three or four hours away by road, and after the meal one drank a local liqueur, pale and sticky, called Fleurs d'Hendaye.

I remember these lucullan details so well because it was at the Bar Basque that I first met Alex in 1938, and in the years that followed the roast duck, the dancing of the jota and the wine became for us symbols of the good lost life to which we hoped to return one day. Through the lean nineteen-forties we thought of the place almost as nostalgically as an ageing woman will recall some romantic moment of her past, a ball, an evening at the theatre, a holiday by the sea, when she first fell in love.

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